Monday, January 22, 2018

You really have to love this guy: The Unfortunate Fursey, and The Return of Fursey, by Mervyn Wall

Say hello to Fursey, who really is one of the most unfortunate yet lovable characters one can possibly come across in a novel, or in this case, a pair of novels written by Irish author Mervyn Wall. Set in Ireland near the end of the tenth century, it all begins here in The Unfortunate Fursey, in which the monastery at Clonmacnoise is beset by demons

Valancourt Books, 2017
originally published 1946
paperback, 215 pp

after its "defences had been breached" one day.  The Abbot warns the community that "the Evil One" has made his way into their midst, and indeed, as the brethren are besieged for fifteen days of terror, they are finally able to expel the forces of darkness  with exorcisms, "the smell of incense, the splashing of holy water and the sound of the Latin language."   The demons are unable to remain anywhere in the monastery with the exception of  the cell of Brother Fursey, whose speech impediment rendered him unable to say the right words to get rid of them.  His cell thus becomes their sanctuary; to save the monastery it is decided that Fursey must be expelled.  After asking the Devil for advice, Fursey sets off for the "fine big city" of Cashel, where the first of his many adventures begins.  Sadly, for our hero, he finds himself constantly caught between the world of sorcery and the Church, and truthfully, the question here is which of the two is the most evil?  

 Jacket illustration of The Unfortunate Fursey from the Swan River Press edition, by Jesse Campbell-Brown.  From Behance

This picaresque saga is continued in the second book, The Return of Fursey

Valancourt Books, 2017
originally published 1948
paperback, 204 pp

which finds Fursey in exile in England where his quiet, cozy life as a grocer has been interrupted; he is now being sought for extradition back to Ireland.  He doesn't want to be forcefully brought back, but he does have a reason for wanting to return to his native land (which I can't reveal without giving away the show) so with the help of a crazy and bloodthirsty band of Vikings, he eventually gets there.  However, it is a very different Fursey this time around, and while the humor is still very much alive and kicking, his story takes a much darker turn in this volume.   Fursey once again finds himself "ensnared" on all sides; how he deals with the several forces contending for his soul is the meat and bones of this tale.  I think it would also be safe to say that both books reveal a man trying to come to terms with discovering his true nature, which is tested often and in many different ways.  

It's so hard to try to describe these two books without taking the spoiler route, and really, to reveal anything would be to ruin the joy for anyone who may want to read these books for the first time.  Underneath all of the humor there runs a dark streak involving the Catholic Church; aside from religion Wall also has plenty to say about politics and human nature itself.   In short, there is method to the author's madness, making for a great (and often laugh-out-loud) reading experience for people who want something well beyond today's standard fantasy fare.   One more thing: I'd advise saving Michael Dirda's excellent introduction until after finishing these novels. 

I fell in love with Fursey from the outset because he's sort of a hapless kind of guy, but as Wall brings his saga to a close in The Return of Fursey, I realized I'd grown so attached to Fursey that I was sad to see it all come to an end.  Both books are awesome silliness on one level; on another they contain a very serious tale that really got underneath my skin and will stay there for some time.  I can't recommend these two books highly enough.   To say I loved them would be an understatement. 

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